Almost 100 years ago, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology acquired 46 at.óowu, sacred objects belonging to the Mount Fairweather house (Snail house) of the Tlingit T’akdeintaan clan in Hoonah.
After a long battle over the objects’ ownership, museum representatives on Wednesday hand-carried three of those at.óowu back to Southeast Alaska for repatriation. Eight were returned in recent years, and the rest — 35 more — will return to the people of Hoonah in the coming months.
With those at.óowu come the spirits of ancestors, said Hoonah clan leaders speaking at a repatriation ceremony on Wednesday.
“While the sacred object was gone, it was just a beautiful art piece. But now that it’s come back, it picked up the spirit that had left. … Now the spirit is coming back into them,” said Mount Fairweather house leader and T’akdeintaan clan leader Ron Williams, quoting an unnamed elder.
“Whenever we get something back that has been lost, it puts us closer to who we really are. Repatriating is putting more soul into who you are,” said Hoonah Indian Association President Frank Wright, Jr.
The return of the at.óowu is a long time in the making. The items left Hoonah after Louis Shotridge, a member of the Kaagwaantaan clan in Klukwan near Haines who collected Tlingit art for the Penn Museum for 20 years, purchased the items for the museum in 1924. It was a time Native peoples in the United States were being heavily pressured to assimilate into mainstream American culture. There is not a bill of sale for the objects, but no one person had the authority to sell the at.óowu and, according to documents filed in the dispute over ownership, clan members at the time did not know what had happened to them.
In the first part of the 20th century and before, European-Americans mistakenly thought the Tlingit worshipped their totem poles, which led to many of them being burned. Other art forms suffered similar prejudice. Beginning in 1915, Alaska Native peoples had to submit to an exam by a board of teachers, certify they had given up traditional ways, and get that certification signed by five white people who had lived in Alaska a year in order to even become citizens.
Hoonah Indian Association CEO Robert Starbard, one of those instrumental in the objects’ return, said that context is integral to understanding Shotridge, of whom he spoke in passionate defense at the repatriation ceremony.
“It is very easy to condemn him for what he did. We shouldn’t. His efforts are revealed in his own writings as about making sure that the culture was protected and preserved,” Starbard said.
But for Shotridge, Starbard emphasized, all the at.óowu now returning to the care of the Hoonah Indian Association would be gone today, whether in the June 14, 1944, fire that destroyed most of Hoonah, including most of the at.óowu remaining there, or in a “symbolic fire (of assimilation).”
“We fight that symbolic fire by not giving into second-guessing his motivations but recognizing … but for the efforts of the Penn Museum to curate these items, they would have been lost to us,” Starbard said.
Welcoming the ancestors
The at.óowu returned Wednesday are a cedar bark ceremonial headband that was a gift from the Tsimshian to the Mount Fairweather House, a “Raven the Pilgrim” rattle from the Stikine Kiks.ádi in the late 1870s or early 1880s, and a blanket with Chilkat trim. All of the objects have a storied history.
Chilkat blankets — intricately woven robes some weavers describe as “like painting with wool” — were sometimes cut into strips to mark someone’s death, said information in the event’s program insert.
“The Chilkat strips on the blanket are associated with the memory of a deceased individual, and the highest tribute to that person expressed by a member of his or her clan. When the deceased is highly regarded by their matrilineal relative(s), the sponsors of a memorial potlatch might bring out a Chilkat blanket and then cut it into strips, or smaller pieces, and distribute them to close patrilineal relatives,” said the insert. “When used, it is believed that all of these associated ancestors from the past are present, which contributes to the sacred character and ‘weight’ of the ceremonial use.”
In a photo taken in front of the Mount Fairweather house in 1924, then house leader and clan leader Archie White is wearing the blanket, which indicates it was one of the clan’s most treasured at.óowu.
Alfie Price, who is Tsimshian, spoke at the ceremony of the headband. He said his own “heart is happy … to see and to feel the representation of what we share as Tlingit and Tsimshian.”
“It’s very, very emotional. It’s very important,” Marlene Johnson, a T’akdeintaan and Starbard’s mother, said of the objects’ repatriation. “It’s one of the nicest things that’s ever happened in my lifetime. I just wish my family was alive yet to see this come back.”
The three at.óowu will be in Hoonah on Saturday for a ku.eex’, or potlatch, in honor of seven of Johnson’s recently deceased family members.
The battle to bring the at.óowu home
The process for the objects’ return started more than 20 years ago. It’s the longest running dispute in NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990) history, said Sealaska Heritage Institute History and Culture Director Chuck Smythe.
Though the dispute was a long one, Williams said it was because a museum representative came to Alaska and spoke at an event in the 1990s that the T’akdeintaan even knew the Penn Museum had the at.óowu.
“It was pretty good of them to do that,” he said. “We have to be thankful that they kept them in such good condition. And we know it’s a big sacrifice on their part to give these items up.”
After learning of their existence, a group of people from Hoonah traveled to Philadelphia to visit the at.óowu.
Williams said when he went to the museum, he was “amazed at the condition all these objects were in.”
Gordon Greenwald, a Chookaneidi who emceed the event, said that on the plane over Philadelphia, they could feel their ancestors calling to them.
“It was amazing, and it was powerful,” said Johnson of the visit. “It brought most of us to tears.”
The museum perspective
At the repatriation ceremony, the Penn Museum’s American Section Associate Curator and Sabloff Keeper of Collections, Lucy Fowler Williams, spoke on behalf of the museum’s delegation. It has been a long process, Williams said, for those at the museum to “understand the importance of these objects” to the people of Hoonah. She named many people, both at the museum and in Southeast Alaska, who have been instrumental in that understanding.
Williams, too, spoke in praise of Shotridge’s foresight in preserving at.óowu. People “wouldn’t even say his name” in Southeast Alaska 10 or 15 years ago, and she’s happy to see that has changed, she said.
She mentioned recently deceased poet, scholar and culture-bearer Nora Marks Dauenhauer (Kheixwnéi) as referring to Shotridge as “a visionary” in one of her books.
“That word is really appropriate,” she said. “It’s an incredible privilege for us at the University of Pennyslvania to house his collection. We have done that with great care, and we have worked very hard to try to understand the incredible breadth and depth of his vision.”
The museum has more than 4,000 digitized images of Shotridge’s recordings, photos, papers and collected objects, according to its website. All of them are available to view for free online.
Two of the museum’s representatives, Stacey Espenlaub and Wendy White, were adopted into the T’akdeintaan clan and given honorary Tlingit names on Wednesday. Williams is already adopted Kiks.ádi, so the T’akdeintaan gifted her an additional honorary Tlingit name.
Future home of the at.óowu
After the repatriation ceremony, the objects on Thursday made the journey to Xúna Shuká Hít, the ancestors’ house completed and dedicated in Glacier Bay, the ancestral home of the Huna Tlingit, in August 2016. The ku.eex’ is Saturday in Hoonah.
After that, the at.óowu, which are being returned to the care of the Hoonah Indian Association, will go to the Alaska State Museum for safekeeping, until Hoonah’s next big project — a museum that can safely house the objects — is complete.
At the end of the repatriation ceremony, Greenwald collected money from audience members in an overturned drum. With donations ranging between $5 and $500, those in the room raised more than $2,000.
Starbard anticipates that the Penn Museum and the people of Hoonah will collaborate on Hoonah’s museum and other projects in the future.
“We have a marvelous history in that we fought for our land. We fought for our at.óowu,” SHI President Rosita Worl said at the event. “And today, our young ones are here to celebrate the survival of our culture. They are learning our language. They are learning our history, because we have the strength as Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people to say that this world must recognize our culture. That they must recognize our beliefs…. This is honorable that they (the at.óowu) are now returned home and that our ancestors can rest. Gunalchéesh to the Xunaa Kaawu (the Hoonah people) for being so strong and protecting our culture.”
A note on spelling differences:
“at.óowu” is the possessive form of the word “at.óow.” When speaking about at.óow generally, the form without the “u” is correct; when there’s a reference to ownership, the possessive “at.óowu” is correct.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that there was a bill of sale for the objects. Louis Shotridge, who acquired the items for the University of Pennsylvania Museum in 1924, recorded his expenses, but there was no bill of sale. This article was been updated to reflect the change.
• Capital City Weekly Editor Mary Catharine Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.